The Queen Doesn't Need a Passport—She Is One

Russell Cheyne / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Yes, you read that right. Queen Elizabeth II doesn’t need a British passport to travel abroad. This is one of my favorite fun facts, and since the Queen makes history tonight by becoming Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, it seemed like a good time to share. Here’s the explanation, from the official website of the British monarchy:

When travelling overseas, The Queen does not require a British passport. The cover of a British passport features the Royal Arms, and the first page contains another representation of the Arms, together with the following wording:

'Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State requests and requires in the name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.'

As a British passport is issued in the name of Her Majesty, it is unnecessary for The Queen to possess one. All other members of the Royal Family, including The Duke of Edinburgh and The Prince of Wales, have passports.

In realms (Commonwealth countries where The Queen is Sovereign), a similar formula is used, except that the request to all whom it may concern is made in the name of the realm's Governor-General, as The Queen's representative in that realm. In Canada, the request is made in the name of Her Majesty by the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Using this logic—that the message inside a British passport makes it redundant for the Queen to carry one—shouldn’t John Kerry be able to go without, too? Here’s what American passports say:

The Secretary of State of the United States of America hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen/national of the United States named herein to pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection.

Probably not. After all, the secretary of state is an employee of the U.S. government, not its sovereign, as one online forum user points out here. I’ve contacted the State Department to find out for sure. For now, let’s just imagine a customs officer asking Kerry what the purpose of his visit is, and Kerry saying that it’s to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran.